Let’s get one thing straight: cabs aren’t cheap. While the reasonably wealthy may enjoy them on a daily basis, we of the lower income brackets resort to metered rides only when we are concerned with time-is-money urgency or personal safety—like after a rowdy night out in the far corners of the borough. But it’s worth it, right? Because despite all the slaps on the wrist we give ourselves for over-spending on a night out, the drunken cab hail is beyond reproach. That’s when you don’t give yourself a talking-to.
So when you can’t see straight, you’ll relish that first-world privilege of having enough money to get from A to B. You’ll say your intersection, climb into a dark backseat somewhere in Brooklyn, and then find yourself home in a warm bed. Sometimes you’ll even catch a little shut-eye along the way. And all of this will be afforded to you because cabs are the safe, door-to-door alternative to public transportation.
That is, unless a driver decides to slide his hand up your thigh.
This isn’t the first time that something ‘outside protocol’ has happened to me in a cab. In the past, though, it’s been something of a different variety, like being charged a lower fare because a driver was feeling the holiday spirit. I guess the cabbie had something else in mind this time.
It must have started somewhere between Park Slope and Bed-Stuy. It was a late night following my favorite monthly event in BK, and I’d had one too many, so I closed my eyes a few minutes after I climbed into a green Boro taxi. The driver took that as his invitation to reach into the backseat with his free hand and ride it up my leg. I jolted myself awake because I felt it. When I opened my eyes, he pulled his hand away. In my drunken haze, I convinced myself that he must have been doing it to keep me awake.
Of late, Uber has been the poster child for this kind of bullshit: they’re making front page news both overseas and close to home, due to reports of harassment coming from a dizzying number of users. These are the horror stories that give us reason to pause before getting into a stranger’s car, licensed or otherwise. But could someone licensed by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) really stoop so low? In terms of business transparency, yellow taxis must set the platinum standard. It’s a public—not to mention iconic—city service. Those drivers must answer to someone, right?
After the first moment I noticed my cabbie’s hand, I made sure to keep my eyes propped open until we got to my street. This didn’t stop him, though, from putting his hand on my thigh again. And when I said, “I’m awake, thanks,” he patted me—patted me—and pulled it away. When we got to my house I said, “Stop here.” And then I paid on credit card, with the door half-open, so hurriedly that I tipped him. $3.00 for a $14.00 handsy cab ride. He wouldn’t give me a receipt.
Guys, I know. There are the I’m-glad-you’re-alrights and the did-you-report-hims of the aftermath. Obviously I’m relieved that it wasn’t worse, that I wasn’t taken advantage of more dangerously. But please join me in being fucking furious that I’ve been conditioned to be happy I was only a little fondled, in a place that wasn’t more private, or that my fucked-up conscience was convincing me that this guy was just trying to be soothing, because he saw how drunk I was, because he was probably a father and I was like his daughter out late. Please, join me in saying FUCK. THAT.
When I got home, I immediately Googled “sexual harassment taxi,” assuming I’d click through to some kind of government-mandated help line. Nope. Instead, I find that there’s not even a sexual harassment category on the TLC complaints page. So eventually, I’m scrolling down and asking myself what to file “driver slides his hand up your leg” under. I was between “Treats You Rudely” and “Is Reckless Or Unsafe.”
I can recall another occasion with a late-night Boro taxi in South Williamsburg, when the driver wouldn’t stop asking me whether I had a boyfriend, whether there was anyone at home waiting for me, whether I’d like his number so he could “pick me up again sometime.” Of course, these incidents aren’t isolated. Of course, this problem is a gendered one.
What’s particularly disturbing about the quieter instances of sexual harassment is how the subtlety of their execution can send us reeling into ourselves. In hearing similarly disturbing accounts of harassment from friends, I’ve been shocked at how all of these instances belie our otherwise very ‘New York’ sensibility. After all, we don’t stay quiet when someone bumps us gruffly on the street. Even if it’s slight, we have an instantaneous reaction of “What the fuck, buddy?” It’s an appropriate reflex: advocating for personal space is fundamental to our sense of citizenry, community and forward momentum in this city, so that’s the kind of doggedness we deploy. And yet, there’s a culture of fear and silence when it comes to grabby cabbies, fapping straphangers and douchey business bros. We’re not always primed with a response that can educate an assailant on why what he’s doing is wrong. Instead, many of us wait until the day after to feel hurt, spiteful, or helpless against a whole system that turns a blind eye to patriarchal delinquency. We post it on Facebook and rally our dissatisfaction, but deep down we don’t feel absolved.
Because of my expedient phone call to the TLC with as many details as I could recall (which happened to be a lot), they actually got the guy who did this to me. I was contacted by a prosecuting attorney, and it turns out that a screenshot of my 2:48am Google Search for “sexual harassment taxi” will be used as evidence in the court hearing next month. Yes, I’m going to testify—even though I shudder to imagine that driver sitting a few feet away from me, perhaps denying everything outright, perhaps giving me a dazed look of oblivion that dulls my sense of injustice. I fear I’ll experience the same guilt that washed over me as I began this post: a slow retraction of statement as I began to doubt what I saw. Wait, did it happen? I was drunk, I was tired, maybe it wasn’t what I thought.
It’s an anxiety that can go so far as to make us apologize for “overreacting” to the whole thing. It’s an anxiety that leads us to complain on social media to our friends, instead of to the authorities.
But our news feeds should inspire us with social responsibility, motivated by all the other people to whom this has happened—and keeps happening. In one month’s time, I will spend a day in court to see that this driver gets his license revoked. And I refuse to remain afraid, as I was briefly, to ‘ruin’ this man with my report. After all, that should be neither our intention nor our fear when we report an incident. Justice is not a form of revenge. It is a form of clarification. It serves as a reminder for the dummies who haven’t yet been re-trained in a meaningful, preventative way against unwanted advances—especially as employees with accountability to a set of ethical business practices.
We’re a long way from total reform of all cat-calling and street harassment. But when something happens to you in any situation that your voice can change, for pete’s sake, don’t stay silent. Report it right away, and see it through with the same determination you would use in returning a defective iPhone, or in complaining about a bug in your food. And don’t be afraid of causing damage. The long-term effects of allowing your body to be an object of someone else’s private sexual pleasure, no matter the degree, are infinitely more damaging.
Update: To see what happened to the cab driver, read the conclusion to this story here.
Follow Sam on Twitter for more things that men will call “angry feminism” at @ahoysamantha